Thursday, June 12, 2008

Characters We Love

Elizabeth Zelvin

I woke up this morning thinking about Brat Farrar: not just Josephine Tey’s 1949 mystery, but Brat himself, the horse-loving orphan who agrees to impersonate a lost heir and finds his “belonging-place.” Yep, I remember the dialogue as well as the characters, decades after I last reread the book. If that’s not a measure of the novelist’s art, I don’t know what is.

Nowadays we hear a lot about “crime fiction,” sometimes accompanied by a dismissal of the traditional mystery. For me, character is the heart of a good book, and my favorite traditional mysteries have it. No matter how long it’s been since I visited them, I’m not going to confuse Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane with anybody else or forget the important events in their lives. The same goes for Judge Deborah Knott, Sharon McCone, Mary Russell, Kate Shugak, Anna Pigeon, and Skip Langdon. All of these characters go through a process of growth and change in the course of a series arc.

One of my newer favorite authors is Charlaine Harris, not because her deft mixing of subgenres started a trend but because each of her protagonists is distinct and memorable. Lily Bard’s the one who survived a horrific abduction and rape, learned martial arts, cleans houses, and roams the streets at night. Sookie Stackhouse is the telepathic barmaid who dates vampires. Harper Connelly got struck by lightning at fifteen and now finds dead people, arousing suspicion and challenging disbelief with her knowledge of how they died. Nor are these details simply backstory stuck onto a generic protagonist figure. All these women have depth and complexity. All are endearing. After reading about them, I’m always eager to come back for more.

My favorite characters in other genres share this ability to leap off the page and into the reader’s heart: Jamie and Claire Fraser, Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin, Francis Crawford of Lymond and Philippa. To me these are real people, whether they live in the past or in the future. In a weird way it doesn’t matter that they exist only on the page. Great characters forge a bond between the author’s imagination and the reader’s and create a small miracle every time we open a book.

Now I’ve got a book and characters of my own. I would be thrilled if they find their way into readers’ hearts like those I’ve mentioned. A few people are starting to talk about my protagonist Bruce and his sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy as if they’re real, as if they have a past and a future outside the covers of Death Will Get You Sober. In fact, I know they do, because they talk to me in my head while I drive or take my daily run. They’re insistent, opinionated, and sometimes smarter and funnier than I am. For sure they’ve got fewer inhibitions about what they’ll say. Come to think of it, they’ve already found their way into at least one real-life person’s heart: my own.


Anonymous said...

Truth to tell, I've always had a thing for Miles Vorkosigan's dad. Or maybe Emperor Gregor, if he wasn't so young.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

They're both taken, Sharon. But what superb--and superbly lovable--books and characters they are. I hear there's a new one in the works, and I can't wait, though my absolutely favorite novel is A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.

Sandra Parshall said...

Many of my favorite characters are in the novels of Edith Wharton and Louise Erdrich. I love the way Erdrich weaves the same set of characters in and out of her stories, bringing certain ones to the foreground in one book, others in another. Her books could be called a series, but not in the way we think of a mystery series. I would love to see a mystery writer use a set of characters the way Erdrich uses hers, but I'm afraid most publishers wouldn't allow it.

A Paperback Writer said...

My favorite crime fiction character hands down is Inspector Rebus. Sometimes I think I know the guy personally.
Many's the time I've had something of a crush on a character from a book, but I realized a few months ago I had a thing for one of my own characters. I think I made him a little too much of what I'd want in a man.... And it's not even a romantic plot! Nor is this character the protagonist! Weird.